Thursday, February 6, 2020
Books: "Irving Berlin: New York Genius" By James Kaplan
Irving Berlin: New York Genius
By James Kaplan
Yale University Press; hardcover, 424 pages; $26.00
In the latest edition of the renowned Jewish Lives series, James Kaplan writes this memoir on composer Irving Berlin's life as a self-made man and witty, wily, tough Jewish immigrant interplayed with the life of New York City.
Berlin has been called the greatest songwriter of the golden age of the American popular song by many luminaries, including George Gershwin.
In a career that spanned a remarkable nine decades, Berlin write fifteen hundred songs - that's right, 1.500 tunes, including "God Bless America," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and "White Christmas." From ragtime to the rock era, Berlin's work has endured to the very fiber of American national identity.
Legendary composer Jerome Kern wrote, "Berlin has no place in American music, he is American music."
Irving Berlin: New York Genius is a fast-paced, musically opinionated biography that uncovers Berlin's unique brilliance as a composer of music and lyrics.
Kaplan uses photographs of Berlin as touchstones throughout the book, as he writes here, "Another Photograph: Irving Berlin, age twenty-six, sitting at his desk in the Waterson Berlin & Snyder offices at 112 West 38th Street. His back is to a window with the firm's name printed on it; outside, a striped awning blocks bright sunlight: it is spring or summer of 1914. Berlin is wearing a silk foulard necktie and a beautifully tailored gray silk suit, and staring directly at the camera. He holds some folded papers in his hand - probably business correspondence or contracts rather than music - and his desk is also piled with papers. He is busy, in the midst of business, and his gaze is intense and slightly forbidding. His dark hair is unruly, and a few locks fall on the side of his forehead, emphasizing his youth - and then the fact of his youth circles the viewer back to that splendid suit and tie, and his name on the window, and the pile of papers in front of him, and the fact that although he is four years from thirty, he is already two years a widower, and immensely successful and powerful.
"Nineteen fourteen was a banner year for Berlin: the year the songwriting dynamo joined the fledgling American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, ASCAP, as a charter member and member of the board of directors; the year he wrote his first score for a full-length musical; and the year he left Waterson Berlin & Snyder to found his own music-publishing firm, the Irving Berlin Music Company.
"Yet Berlin's commmanding gaze in the photograph also disguised a deep unease: 'I was scared to death because I didn't know if I could continue to write hits,' he recalled. And he was fretting not just about his own inventiveness but about the shrinking profit margins of selling sheet music. Tin Pan Alley, the industry that lifted him to fame, 'was suffering from its own success,' Philip Furia writes. The growth of the music industry had spawned too many publishing firms and generated 'cutthroat competition,' Berlin told Theater magazine.
"The bold and seemingly counterintuitive move of hanging our his own shingle (along with his old friend and champion Max Winslow) in new offices at Broadway and 47th Street owed much to Charles Dillingham's plans for him. The veteran Broadway producer, famous for mounting the operettas of the Irish-born, German-trained Victor Herbert (Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta), had sat enthralled in the audience of Berlin's September 1911 stage performance at Hammerstein's Victoria. As Dillingham wrote in an unpublished memoir, 'The first time I heard Alexander's Ragtime Band, I decided that the composer I.B. should write an entire score for me, and that was the start of 'Watch Your Step.''...
"The twenty-six-year-old Berlin and his songs seemed to be everywhere, as did the elegant young dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle, who had gained attention on both sides of the Atlantic with their genteel interpretations of dangerous dances like the maxixe and the tango - dances that had originated, in an unapologetically sexual form, in the late nineteenth century in the portside slums of Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo. By desexualizing these dances - they even invented a No-Hands Tango - the Castles made them safe for white audiences (and soon, participants) and became all the rage themselves. The slim and graceful couple modeled a panache that everyone wanted to imitate: Irene bobbed her hair and smoked cigarettes; many young women soon followed suit. And Charles Dillingham wanted to set the elegance of the Castles to the music of Irving Berlin."